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A t Ja me s Mad is on Uni ver si ty

The Rise of “Hinduism”; or, How to Invent a World

Religion With Only Moderate Success

Julius J. Lipner
Professor of Hinduism and Comparative Study of Religion
University of Cambridge

Lecture in the History and Philosophy of Hinduism

October 13, 2005

MSC 2604, Cardinal House • 500 Cardinal Drive • Harrisonburg, Virginia 22807, USA
540.568.4060 • 540.568.7251 fax • •
The Rise of “Hinduism”; or, How to Invent a World Religion
With Only Moderate Success

Julius J. Lipner
Professor of Hinduism and Comparative Study of Religion
University of Cambridge

Does Hinduism Exist? Posing the Question

The bookshelves are full of books on “Hinduism,” on what it is or may be or on features

of this world religion.1 The publishers continue to advertise and clamor for works that fall
under the rubric of “Hinduism.” Such works occupy parallel space in the shelves to books
on Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Sikhism, and so on. We are told that there are
about 900 million Hindus dispersed around the world, the vast majority of whom live in
India.2 The experts remind us that this is a very ancient religion, with roots delving deep
beyond the second millennium BCE, when faiths such as Jainism, Buddhism,
Christianity, Islam, and Sikhism were nonexistent. They point out, further, that a
religious culture of such antiquity cannot but have exercised through the ages a
widespread influence, by action or reaction, by migration and absorption of peoples, on
the civilizations of our world right up to the present day. They enumerate the areas in
which the pressures of this influence have been discernible: for example, in helping shape
in all sorts of complex ways the traditions of Jainism, Buddhism, Indian Islam, and
Sikhism; in dispersing the narratival context, characters, and ethos of the two great
religious Sanskrit epics, the Mahåbhårata and the Råmåya~a (both, in large part, about
two millennia old), to many cultures in Southeast Asia and beyond; in highlighting forms
of renunciation and meditation in both the ancient and modern world—the ancient Greeks
viewed with interest the beliefs of the gymnosophists or naked ascetics that were
encountered in northwestern India (see, for example, Halbfass 1990: 3, 12), while in
modern times who has not heard of New Age religion, peppered as it is in some of its
modes with Hindu ideas of meditative practice and belief? It is from the ancient Hindu
system of yoga that the West has derived today so many techniques of self-help and
healthy living.3 Words like guru, ahiμså (with special reference to the life of Mohandas
K. Gandhi), åtman, karman, and mantra have been adopted into many non-Indian
languages. These are but a few examples of the widespread embededdness of Hindu
influence in the world.
2005 Lecture in the History and Philosophy of Hinduism / 3

“Hinduism,” thus, may be accounted a world religion par excellence. It is a world

religion because of its numerical magnitude, the global dispersal of its adherents, and its
pervasive cultural influence. This runs parallel to the growing influence in the world
today—economically, politically, and culturally—of India as a “Hindu” nation by default
(“by default,” because India is not officially a Hindu state in the way, for example, Saudi
Arabia is officially a Muslim one; by constitution India is a “secular” state, where
“secular” means that no single faith is privileged over any other by act of parliament). An
impressive record then: “Hinduism,” at least by perception, is a tradition of great
antiquity, very large numbers, wide-ranging influence, and continuing relevance.
Possibly. “Possibly” because it is not obvious to me what “Hinduism” is or who a
Hindu might be. The monolithic understanding of Hinduism sketched above is suspect to
its very roots; it gives the impression that it is something given, “out there,” static—and
that those who could claim to be “Hindu” all believe and act in a regimented fashion. But
this is not how I see the phenomenon we describe as “Hinduism”: I see it as dynamic,
elusive, changing—in and through the diverse beliefs and practices of its adherents.
Nevertheless, it is in some danger of changing today more or less into the caricature I
have outlined above.
In this essay I want to inquire into how Hinduism so-called has developed from the
past, to try and pin down to some extent its elusive nature, and to warn of impending
dangers. In the process I hope key questions will emerge about the nature of religion and
its relationship to culture, questions which, if pursued seriously, at least with reference to
Hinduism, may well change the way we view the world and relate to other human beings.
Surely this will pay tribute to the Hindu Mahåtmå—the action-thinker par excellence—
who though so unlike his famous contemporary, Karl Marx, in ideology, may well have
adopted the latter’s philosophical maxim as a rule of life: “the aim is not to understand
the world, but to change it.”

A Question of Origins

Where does the word “Hindu” come from? Perhaps a glance at this question will show us
a path through the tangle of aporias that faces us. Descriptions, not least self-descriptions,
are psychologically significant. They help determine perceptions and identity; they set the
tone for the intercourse of human relations. They are markers, not chiefly of origins, but
of journeys in the making. They are also signifiers of particular histories. As such, they
are susceptible to the change of renewed interpretations. So it is with the terms “Hindu”
and “Hinduism.”
So, is “Hindu”—both as the element in “Hinduism” and as the descriptor of an
individual or community—an “insider” term or an “outsider” term? First, let us look at
4 / Julius J. Lipner

“Hindu” derives from the Sanskrit word sindhu, an early word for “river,” “stream,”
but which in particular referred to the life-giving waters of the great river (the Indus) fed
by various tributaries in the foothills of the Himålayas and flowing 3,180 kilometers in
the northwest of the subcontinent to the Arabian Sea. In a derived form—saindhavaª—
the word referred to the peoples who lived around the river in the region known even
today as “Sindh.” We speak of words that were in use over three thousand five hundred
years ago in a language, namely, Sanskrit, of a people who called themselves “Åryans”
(from the word, årya, meaning “noble”). It is not for us to discuss here the original
homeland of this people. As is well known, this is a contentious issue, not only from the
point of view of scholarship, but also in the context of modern Indian politics. The point
here is that in its origins “Hindu” to some extent was an insider word, used apparently by
so-called Åryans themselves to refer to at least some groups among them. “To some
extent” an insider word, because outsiders also used derivatives of the term sindhu to
refer to the inhabitants surrounding the river (hence “Indus”) and living eastwards beyond
its boundary in so far as these inhabitants seemed to be unified culturally. The ancient
Persians and Greeks called these people(s) “Hindus” and “Indikoi” respectively, and
much later on, before and after the rise of Islam, the Arabs called the land beyond the
great river al-Hind.
This symbiosis between insider and outsider uses of (derivatives of) the name sindhu
continued in various ways. Thus the great poet-saint Kab⁄r (fifteenth–sixteenth century
CE) is reputed to have said (Kumar 1984: 21, 31):

“Gorakh! Gorakh!”
cries the Jog⁄
“Råm! Råm!”
says the Hindu.
“Allah is One”
proclaims the Muslim.
My Lord pervades all.
The god of Hindus resides in a temple;
The god of Muslims resides in a mosque.
Who resides there
Where there are no temples
Nor mosques?

Note the use of “Hindu” here. It is a differentiating term, not least in contradistinction to
“Muslim.” Indeed, Kab⁄r himself can hardly be characterized as either Hindu or Muslim.
This differentiating use of “Hindu,” with special reference to “Muslim,” very soon took
on a homogenizing turn, separating Muslims as “outsiders” from “Hindus” as people
2005 Lecture in the History and Philosophy of Hinduism / 5

following an indigenous way of life or dharma. When the British arrived and began to be
a dominant political force in the latter half of the eighteenth century the words “Hindu”
and “Hinduism” were used in the same way on both sides of the divide—as markers of
religious and cultural identity and as agents of standardization.4 There are modern
implications of this usage to which I shall return. But there are several features of this
brief semantic history that are indicative.

Some Implications of Current Usage

First, the word “Hindu” did not start off as a specifically religious term, at least in the
modern sense of religious as connoting a set of beliefs and practices pertaining to some
transcendent realm or supreme being and attributable to a particular founder. There is no
discernible human founder of Hinduism, as there is of Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity,
Islam, and Sikhism, for example. In this respect, Hinduism is anomalous. The term
started life as basically a cultural expression, referring to the way or ways of life of a
culturally unified and geographically designated people, in which “religious” phenomena
of course were included.
Second, notwithstanding the point made above, “Hindu” (and “Hinduism”) have
displayed a volatile history. They have been used to set individuals or groups apart on the
basis of cultural orientations that were perceived to fall on one side or other of the
insider-outsider divide with respect to subcontinental indigenousness. In this way, these
terms have functioned as collectivizing expressions. The value judgments attached to
them have tended to be negative or neutral from the standpoint of the outsiders, but
positive in the sense of expressing various forms of solidarity and “ownership” of
indigenous culture from the point of view of the insiders. These are abstract observations,
of course, and require fleshing out in terms of concrete histories, but they make a point
crucial to the trajectory of these appellations.
Third, the English word “Hinduism” (and indeed “Hindu”) is of comparatively recent
coinage; there is evidence that it acquired some currency in the late eighteenth century in
England (Sweetman 2003: 56n12). It was soon adopted by Indians writing and speaking
in English (the noted reformer Ram Mohan Roy seems to have been among the first
Indians to use the word in 1815). It has European counterparts, of course, but let us stick
to English usage here not only for reasons of convenience but also because of the great
influence English has had in subcontinental history. What has been problematic about the
term “Hinduism” has been its abstract form, indicated by the suffix “-ism.” In his
landmark work, The Meaning and End of Religion, Wilfred Cantwell Smith has analyzed
some conceptual implications of this abstractification. He notes that it has a tendency to
“reify,” that is, to make a bloc reality in our minds of the thing denoted, so that we are
encouraged to think that it is a static given (Smith 1978: 51, especially chapters 2–3). In
other words, it is a usage with essentializing tendencies. We imbibe the impression that
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“Hinduism” as a religio-cultural phenomenon has an essence with fixed properties to

which Hindus, in so far as they are Hindus, subscribe. This abstractification puts
Hinduism on a par with other reifications such as Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity, and so
on, even Islam (which in this context is no more than a verbal mask substituting for the
now-rejected “Mohammedanism,” the original English appellation for the traditions of
These reifying terms do a serious injustice to the faiths they are meant to denote,
especially to Hinduism. For they play a leading part in shaping a mind-set which assumes
that there is a standard form of the religion denoted. There are two unfortunate
consequences of this practice. First, it sets us off on a wild-goose chase to discover the
fixed characteristics, primary or secondary, of the essentialized faith in question, thereby
undercutting the rich diversity of actual belief and practice. At ground level, when we
engage generally with real-life believers who describe themselves as belonging to this
faith or that, we cannot help being struck by the amazing lack of homogeneity, both
diachronically and synchronically, even within the parameters of a single denomination,
in their religious beliefs and practices. This is more so in the case of Hinduism. But the
second undesirable consequence, it seems to me, of using reifying appellations is that
they categorize adherents of the faiths in terms of disjunctive dyads which express a
range of ontological and evaluative judgments, judgments that turn on the contrast
between so-called “true,” “real,” or “authentic” believers and those who are deemed to be
“false,” “inauthentic,” “deviant,” or “aberrant”; in short, on the contrast between a
“them” and an “us,” making of some groups of people a kind of despised “other.” History
has shown how the use of power in applying such judgments has filled the world with
intolerance, misery, and injustice.

Images of Hinduism

I remarked earlier that Hinduism seems to have suffered especially from this tendency to
essentialize, to create a bigger gap between the fiction of a homogenizing label and the
fact of a rich diversity of belief and practice than exists in the case of most other faiths. I
cannot launch into a justification of this claim here. But I think the following
observations will provide a salient clue to recognizing how misleading the appellation
“Hinduism” can be as an index of standardization. Let me begin by referring to a
dominant metaphor used by a wide range of commentators to describe the phenomenon
we call Hinduism, namely, the metaphor of a “jungle.”
The examples for this usage, from early outsider efforts to both insider and outsider
attempts of the present day, are legion; let me alight on but two. In an interesting article,
Christopher Pinney writes as follows:
2005 Lecture in the History and Philosophy of Hinduism / 7

Ron Inden has recently noted that throughout orientalist scholarship probably the
commonest metaphor for Hinduism was that of the jungle.…This was clearly argued
by Sir Charles Eliot (1862–1931) who claimed that “the jungle is not a park or
garden. Whatever can grow in it does grow. The Brahmans are not gardeners but
forest officers” (1992: 168, 171).

A more recent example can be cited from the work of the well-known scholar, R. C.
Zaehner. In his book, Hinduism, Zaehner writes:

Hinduism is a vast and apparently incoherent religious complex, and any writer on
Hinduism…must choose between producing a catalogue or school textbook which
will give the student the maximum number of facts within a very limited compass, or
he will attempt, at his peril, to distil from the whole mass of his material the fine
essence that he considers to be the changeless ground from which the proliferating
jungle that seems to be Hinduism grows (1966: 3).

Such talk of a “proliferating jungle” to characterize Hinduism militates against the

attempt to make of it the sum of parts (namely, the various denominations) that differ
from each other only incidentally. Indeed, it is talk that evokes diversity, profusion,
difference, even chaos. It indicates that there is no standard thing called “Hinduism”—
just as there is no single tree or plant that is characteristic of the jungle—but it also
indicates, as I have hinted, that there is no principle of coherence between the various
parts that make up the whole.
On the one hand, the value of the “jungle” metaphor is to indicate a form of internal
diversity in Hinduism that cannot be reduced to only extraneous differences, to what we
may refer to, if we are to persevere with our jungle metaphor, as accidental changes
within a species of faith. The internal profusion of Hindu belief and practice is deeper
than that. But, on the other hand, if the jungle trope is taken too literally, it militates
against any form of internal coherence at all. “Hinduism” becomes a label for a mere
aggregate of beliefs and practices brought together by the vagaries of chance or
circumstance. In that case, Hinduism as a phenomenon becomes so anomalous as to be
outside the pale of comparison with such traditions as Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, and
so on. Is there no cohesive principle to keep what might otherwise be an expanding
aggregate of belief and practice nevertheless a recognizably Hindu aggregate of belief
and practice? Is there no way of detecting a principle of unity which bestows a kind of
coherence to the whole we are pleased to call “Hinduism”?
I believe that there is such a cohesive principle, which acts distinctively in the
universe of Hindu belief and practice, and that we may explicate it in a way that may be
both religiously and culturally illuminating. This does not mean that there will be no
problem cases in recognizing what may be “Hindu” on occasion—all belief and practice
8 / Julius J. Lipner

systems are susceptible to such uncertainty—but it also means that we have grounds for
using the appellation “Hinduism” (and “Hindu”) as a distinctive label of identification.
Finally, and importantly, to alight on one principle of cohesive unity does not mean that
there are no others, but this is a further question with which I shall not concern myself
So how do we proceed? The next stage would be to look for a regulative trope that is
perhaps more apt in the case of Hinduism than the jungle metaphor. Still within the
bounds of arboreal symbols, I propose the model of a banyan tree (ficus benghalensis or
ficus indica). Indeed, in his article Pinney goes on to mention this very symbol in the
course of his discussion. “All Asiatic botany,” he observes,

provided a store of metaphors about the vastness of the East, but the banyan stressed
difference as well as fecundity and complexity since, as Bernard Cohn has noted, “it
grew up, out and down at the same time.”…For this reason, Cohn suggests, it was
unamenable to use in standard arboreal metaphors (Pinney 1992: 171).


Photographers continued to make use of the [banyan] motif. Studios such as

Skeen…and Scowen in Colombo produced images from the 1870s onwards which
partly decontextualized and emphasized the swirling lateral growths of the roots as
though to affirm that the “East” was indeed a place where simple linear dendritic
symbols could not apply (Pinney 1992: 171–72).

There is one photograph in particular Pinney provides (1992: 172, Plate 109), which
illustrates well the tendency of an ancient banyan to extend aerial roots from lofty
branches down to the ground below and which may eventually develop to look like
established trunks in their own right, the whole structure resembling over time a grove of
many trunks which in fact constitute a single tree with its overarching canopy of
interlaced branches and leaves. This, it seems to me, is a more apt model of the unity in
diversity that is the phenomenon we call Hinduism than that of the jungle. In fact, I had
independently introduced it in my book Hindus in 1994 and then developed it in an
article published in Religious Studies in March 1996, and elaborated it further in my
chapter in The Hindu World (Mittal and Thursby 2004). Pinney’s mention of the symbol
was drawn to my attention only later.
Pinney, the anthropologist, suggests an interpretation of the banyan in relation to
Hinduism that seems more subtle and ambivalent than those indicated by his earlier
colonial colleagues. Referring to a plate of two low-caste Camårs given on page 170 of
his essay, he says,
2005 Lecture in the History and Philosophy of Hinduism / 9

Perhaps this photograph is placing the Chamars as a caste in a tangled web of

otherness, of spirituality, belief, and ultimately of the immaterial, the familiar realm
of the “Orient.” This may be so, but it seems equally convincing to turn this around
and see it as an admission of defeat by colonial discourse rather than as proof of its
extraordinary power to say completely opposite things which ultimately have the
same meaning (Pinney 1992: 172).

In other words, the picture may be decoded as pointing to “the Hindus with their banyan
tree, lost in the depths of the jungle, in a dark vegetation free of the deathly illumination
and scrutiny of Western science” (Pinney 1992: 172). Perhaps—though I expect his
Orientalist co-anthropologists would be rather put out by this interpretation. I doubt if
their own take on the picture was so consciously ambivalent. However, it is interesting to
record an instance, again brought to my attention, of a colonial Christian theologian this
time, using the model of the banyan in relation to Hindus in a more positive way, though
in language characteristic here and there of the insensitivities of the period. But the model
here is applied, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, to the development of the Christian
Church over the ages. “Out of the most unpromising material,” avers A. G. Hogg in his
The Christian Message to the Hindu,

[Christ] created a Church which deliberately took the whole world for its field…and
which, like a great, self-spreading banyan-tree, has from its branches sent down roots
into one heathen soil after another—roots which are already thickening into new
trunks that will support as heavy a weight as the parent-stem. Such is the community
of the Kingdom of God (1947: 71–72).

An advantage of these quotations is to give a clear indication of the observational

characteristics of an ancient banyan: a “self-spreading” structure, internally one, yet with
apparently diverse (sy)stems of growth and development; in short, an interactive, many-
centered grid of organic unity. It is this “polycentric” dimension of the banyan that I have
made my own and developed as a model for the religio-culturally unified but teeming
profusion perceived as “Hinduism.” We must inquire into this characteristic further.

A Banyan Model Illustrated

Let me give three representative examples of what I mean. The first is taken from the
way Hindus tend to identify the authority of canonical sacred texts or “scripture.” It is
well known that historically the most authoritative scripture of the Hindus is the four
Vedas (or collectively, the Veda). In their present form, these began to be redacted well
over three thousand years ago, their final phase being formulated not long after the
beginning of the Common Era. It is not necessary for our purposes to elaborate on the
10 / Julius J. Lipner

content of the four Vedas. We are interested in the authoritative role they played in
transmitting soteriological knowledge. As is well attested both by Hindu experts in Vedic
lore and by non-Hindu scholars, Vedic texts are frequently hard to decode semantically
(and have been the subject down the ages of vigorous internal religious debate). It was
not long before other texts arose, at first in Sanskrit, but later in various vernaculars or
regional tongues, which claimed to transmit on a more accessible level Vedic meaning
and authority. The important thing is that these texts too were referred to as “Vedas,” not
indeed metaphorically—as when we might say with reference to, for instance, the Bible
that certain other works have become the “Bible” of cookery, or of the PC user, or of the
history of football or film (in this secondary application the meaning of “Bible” is non-
literal or metaphorical)—but in a literal sense as a form of alternative Veda, really
transmitting for the benefit of designated communities Vedic soteriology with due
authority. There are numerous examples of such texts, accepted more or less universally
in the social panoply of Hinduism. Thus the Purå~as (from about sixth century BCE
onwards), compendia of diverse kinds of religious and cultural lore and divided up and
enumerated in different ways by various groups of Hindus, are called collectively the
“fifth Veda” (pañcama veda), the description suggesting that this more intelligible fifth
Veda (or parts thereof), when correctly interpreted, is capable of having the same salvific
effect as the “original” Veda.5 The famous epic story of the internecine conflict between
two branches of one family, the På~avas and the Kauravas, known as the Mahåbhårata
(ca. fifth century BCE to fifth century CE), describes itself also as the “fifth Veda,”
stating with disarming self-confidence that it is “a work on a par with the Vedas and
supremely purifying” (1.56.15; Poona Critical Edition). Again, as Kunal Chakrabarty
(2001: 188–89) has shown, certain Tantric texts (ca. sixth–seventh century CE onwards),
focusing on the exploits and powers of the goddess, referred to themselves as Vedic in
their salvific efficacy. In similar vein, there are devotional texts from about the seventh to
tenth century CE known collectively as the Tamil Veda, and so on.
What is happening here in so distinctive a fashion? In a variety of contexts, what we
have called alternative Vedas have been set up, with the recognition that they convey,
when appropriately interpreted, the soteriological power of the four canonical Sanskrit
Vedas. But this is not all. They are perceived to do this in so far as they coexist
interactively with the “original” Vedas through one or other interpretative strategy.6
“Original” Vedic authority and salvific efficacy flows dialectically between the centers
under scrutiny, this relationship endorsing the original source of soteriological power. In
fact, a unique çakti or power has been refracted and multiplied in this network,
overcoming the hiatuses and responding to the needs of space, time, language, and social
context. In an earlier work, I have described the dynamics of this polycentric system as
2005 Lecture in the History and Philosophy of Hinduism / 11

This is a form of intertextuality that is both decentring and re-integrative: by virtue of

its decentring tendency it can accommodate an indefinite number of members
simultaneously in the nexus; in so far as it is re-integrative it is capable of sustaining
itself. The dynamic of the whole permits individual members to be subtracted from or
added to the grid in a more or less contingent fashion. “Vedas” can drop out of or
enter the system by force of historical circumstance without impairing either the
critical mass or the modality of the whole. This is one way in which polycentrism as a
characteristic of the Hindu banyan expresses itself, and it is a way of tenacious
survival and adaptive propagation (Lipner 2004: 27).

It is also at the heart of the secret of Hindu tolerance or accommodation in religious belief
and practice intradenominationally. In fact, Hinduism has not been very tolerant
(socially) when it comes to the practice of ritual and caste observances, while in matters
of religious belief I have also tried to show elsewhere (Lipner 1994: 180–81) that there
has usually been a passion for grasping the truth rather than for taking recourse to some
form of radical epistemological relativism. Nevertheless, this leaves room for some form
of epistemological, and consequently doctrinal, tolerance in Hindu traditions so that there
is some force to the dictum that Hinduism is a tolerant tradition, at least in this that there
is a leading tendency to consider and accommodate other points of view seriously. It is
the polycentric mentality that makes this possible. How polycentrism enables Vedic
authority to leapfrog from one textual context to another is a separate issue, and under
note 6 we have looked at a couple of strategies that may be employed.
Let us now move on to our next representative illustration of how Hindu polycentrism
works. This has to do with a very visible and basic aspect of Hindu religion, namely, the
worship of images. Everyone is familiar with the fact that there is a profusion of sacred
images in Hinduism, both in the temple and in the home, so much so that Hindu religion
is commonly (if mistakenly) described as “polytheistic,” that is, as having “many gods.”
Indeed, the unwary Hindu himself or herself often appears to connive in fostering this
description. But a little bit of Socratic questioning or study of the matter will show how
misleading “polytheism” is as a description of Hindu religiosity. In general, it is not
polytheism but a form of polycentrism.7 Let me explain.
In accordance with earlier remarks I have made, the banyan of Hinduism contains a
vast array of different sects, cults, and denominations, each with its own stem system of
worship and belief, connected textually, mythologically, socially, and so on, in complex
ways with the network of the whole (tracing these complex connections in particular
cases in the context of the banyan model would constitute the object, I believe, of
illuminating research). Now let us consider a particular stem system—“center” in the
polycentric model—in which Vi‚~u is worshipped as the supreme being, namely, Tamil
Çr⁄ Vai‚~avism. For Çr⁄ Vai‚~avas, there is only one supreme being, who is named
Vi‚~u-Nåråya~a. Vi‚~u-Nåråya~a’s consort, the Goddess Çr⁄ (hence “Çr⁄ Vai‚~avism”),
12 / Julius J. Lipner

is an integral part of the godhead so to speak, perceived not as fragmenting the

underlying unity of the divine being but rather as coexisting with Vi‚~u-Nåråya~a in a
kind of binitarian relationship somewhat analogous metaphysically to Christian
Trinitarianism. In fact, the two divine “centers” of Vi‚~u-Nåråya~a and Çr⁄ relate
dialectically in such a fashion that they share and express, each in their own way with
particular reference to ritual, narrative, and so on, among devotees, the same divine
power and graciousness.8 Further, Vi‚~u-Nåråya~a manifests in various modes, specific
to time and place, for example, as the avatåras K®‚~a Våsudeva or Narasiμha in mythic
history or as this or that persona in one temple or other, in accordance with his gracious
will. All these further manifestations, which may have their own cultic practices, are
actual manifestations of the same godhead, endorsing and reinforcing each other through
a dialectical grid that draws its authority theologically from the same ultimate source. All
coexist, if not simultaneously (and an indefinite number can coexist simultaneously),
then in the same mutually interactive framework of divine efficacy.
There is a further dimension to this polycentric grid: other “gods” and “goddesses”—
themselves perhaps supreme centers in one particular stem system or other of the Hindu
banyan—“gods” and “goddesses” such as Çiva or Ga~eça or Rådhå or Kål⁄—may also be
accommodated, perhaps with their own specificities of ritual, worship, and mythology, as
lesser but interrelated centers in the dispensation of the whole. The entire far-flung
system functions in that it is a theologically unified network of textual, metaphysical,
mythological, ritual, and social centripetal and centrifugal forces.
First, this is not polytheism but a kind of polymorphic monotheism. There is only one
godhead manifesting variously. Second, it is a polycentric reality in that the “divine”
centers of the system—higher and lower, with their own sometimes apparently
conflicting cultic histories—are interpreted as actual expressions of the one ultimate
godhead, Vi‚~u-Nåråya~a. Further—and this is important—the Çr⁄ Vai‚~ava (stem)
system itself is but one centre among many in the extensive tracery of the Hindu banyan,
drawing its distinctive life force from the shared environment of the whole.
In scope and practice, I believe there is nothing quite like this in the religious
expression of any other world faith. The many denominations of so-called mainstream
Christianity, for instance, admit of no other text on a par with the Bible, converge on but
one name by which all must be saved, do not admit of various incarnational or other
forms of the deity coexisting in and through different cultic practices, and have hardly
developed a theology of inclusiveness (that is, with respect to intra-Christian
denominations, leave alone non-Christian faiths). Most important of all, perhaps—and
this is where they depart radically from the ethos of polycentrism—they seek inherently
to polarize, to prioritize the centripetal forces of authority and belief over the centrifugal,
rather than to maintain the two in a form of life that is expressed in the tensive
equilibrium that characterizes the dialectical grid of polycentrism. Judaism and Islam
seem to exhibit on the whole an even sharper contrast with Hinduism in this respect. In
2005 Lecture in the History and Philosophy of Hinduism / 13

short, theologically, I do not find the Abrahamic faiths in their present forms essentially
polycentric at all. (Note that this is intended to be a descriptive rather than evaluative
We now come to our final example of Hindu polycentrism. To show that this form of
life expresses itself beyond the purely religious (if there is such a thing), let me cite an
observation from the work of Ronald Inden. In his Imagining India he writes:

When we consider that all rivers were said ultimately to originate from the Gagå,
when we take into account the fact that some of the Purå~as refer to the Godavari and
the Krishna, the rivers constituting the imperial domains of the Rashtrakutas [in
middle eastern India], as Gagås of the south, when we remember that the
Rasktrakutas were talking about these topographical features [namely, mount Kailåsa
of the north and the Gagå of the northeast] not simply as physical places, but as the
domains of purposive agents interacting with time, country, universal king and
cosmic overlord to make and remake a divinized polity, it all makes good sense
(1990: 259; emphasis added).

In other words, there are repeated occurrences historically where the “original” holy
Gagå flowing physically in one part of the land, becomes re-expressed in rivers
elsewhere and sacred mount Kailåsa located in the Himålayas is re-identified in
mountains elsewhere so that their re-centered efficacy becomes the legitimating base of
the polities of these regions. Through this process of diffusion, the authority of the
original is dispersed to its new centre(s), and what is more, such dispersion is perceived
to “make sense” all round. The world is re-ordered and political order re-framed. It would
be interesting to discern whether modern liaisons among political parties in India
conform to some mode of the polycentric model (in some cases perhaps without the
religious overtones).
There are numerous other examples of polycentrism in action to characterize the
Hindu way of life in various domains, and I have considered some of these elsewhere
(see Lipner 2004). But we must now move on to the final part of this essay, namely, to a
consideration of how Hinduism is being “modernized” in some circles in a way that
militates against its established polycentric characteristics. This represents an invented
form of Hinduism, but, as I hope to indicate, with only dubious success.

A Modern Form of Hinduism, or How to Invent a Religion

The locus classicus for this process can be traced to the interaction between members of
the Hindu intelligentsia, on the one hand, and British administrators and missionaries in
particular, on the other, in early nineteenth-century Bengal. By then the colonial project
had been well established, and Bengal was emerging as the prize of the British East India
14 / Julius J. Lipner

Trading Company. Already in his famous “Minute of 1835 on Indian Education” to the
Supreme Council of the colonial government in Calcutta, Thomas Babington Macaulay,
president of the influential Committee of Public Instruction, had announced what was to
become the policy of the British administration:

We have to educate a people who cannot at present be educated by means of their

mother-tongue. We must teach them some foreign language….What then shall that
language be?….I have no knowledge of either Sanscrit or Arabic.…But…I have
never found one [Orientalist]…who could deny that a single shelf of a good European
library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia….The claims of our
own language [English] it is hardly necessary to recapitulate….I think it is clear
that…English is better worth knowing than Sanscrit or Arabic[,]…that it is possible
to make natives of this country thoroughly good English scholars, and that to this end
our efforts ought to be directed (1967: 722, 729).9

Thus English education was to be the medium of higher instruction in the land, and to be
fair, for their own reasons this was a policy avidly endorsed by the Indian elite on the
whole. In other words, now that this challenging intercultural encounter had fully
engaged at the level of the elites in a tongue that had shaped the thought processes of one
side, influential Hindu Bengalis sought to characterize their ancestral faith and some of
its leading figures as equal counterparts of the religion of their political masters.
Conceptual steps were taken to show that “Hinduism” was really monotheistic, part of the
divine dispensation to know and worship “the one, true god,” and that Hindu polytheism
and Bråhma~ic priestcraft were corrupting accretions (for example, Ram Mohan Roy);
that the “discriminatory practices” of the age-old caste system were likewise corruptions
of an originally egalitarian revelation with a social message teaching human equality
between the sexes and the castes (for example, the Bråhmo Samåj, and later Svåm⁄
Vivekånanda) and that this model of Hinduism was one up on its rival, Christianity, in
that it could accommodate more easily the (Western) advances of reason and science (for
example, the Bråhmo Samåj, Svåm⁄ Vivekånanda, Bankimcandra Chatterji). Indeed, on
one quite contemporary reconstruction, it was Hinduism through its monistic essence that
was the one, true faith of humanity, absorbing hierarchically all other forms of religion at
their best and generating a strong impulse towards universal egalitarianism and harmony
(for example, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan9).
But to return to nineteenth-century Bengal: a spate of books, pamphlets, and articles
appeared setting up K®‚~a Våsudeva either implicitly or explicitly as a rival of Christ and
as a form of hero or savior in a nascent nationalist movement. On this reading, the
profusion or “jungle” of traditions that seemed to characterize traditional Hinduism was
on the whole either an aberration or unfortunate mask for what in effect was a
monocentric ancestral faith. These attempts were to a large extent inclusivistic of other
2005 Lecture in the History and Philosophy of Hinduism / 15

peoples and cultures: endeavors to show that the “real” Hinduism could accommodate or
match what was best particularly in the dominant religio-cultural structures of the West,
with special reference to the British.
But before long, and still in the latter half of the nineteenth century, this process of re-
invention for an emerging polity, in Bengal and elsewhere in India, took on, to my mind,
a sinister turn. Burdened by history, a line of thinkers began to construct a Hinduism that
was exclusivistic, characterized by the property of hindutva or “hinduness.” We see this
term crop up in contexts that appear, on the one hand, to actively homogenize all those
considered to be Hindus, dismissing or minimizing their religious differences, and, on the
other, to keep at bay all those described as non-Hindus. Hindutva becomes a marker, with
cumulative effect as time marches on, for a polarized distance between Hindus and non-
Hindus (with Muslims, primarily, and to a lesser extent, Christians, being the target
groups for this latter category). A watershed for this way of thinking, with special
reference to politics in modern India, occurs in the work of the militant thinker, Vinayak
Damodar Savarkar (1883–1966), whose project Klaus Klostermaier describes as follows:

[He] fought…for a violent liberation of India under the Hindu banner from everything
foreign, and a complete restoration of Hindu ideas and Hindu society….In his essay
“Hindutva” he developed the outlines of the new Hindu India. He distinguished
between Hindu-dharma, Hinduism as a religion, which is divided into countless
saμpradayas, and Hindutva, Hindudom [sic] as the unifying socio-cultural
background of all Hindus (1994: 463).

But what are the distinguishing criteria of Hindus qua Hindus according to this point of
view? In his important tract, “Essentials of Hindutva,” Savarkar wrote:

A Hindu…is…[one] who feels attachments to the land that extends from sindhu to
sindhu [sea] as the land of his forefathers—as his Fatherland; who inherits the blood
of the great race…which[,] assimilating all that was incorporated and ennobling all
that was assimilated[,] has grown into and come to be known as the Hindu people;
and who, as a consequence of the foregoing attributes, has inherited and claims as his
own…the Hindu civilization, as represented in a common history, common heroes, a
common literature, a common art, a common law and a common jurisprudence,
common fairs and festivals, rites and rituals, ceremonies and sacraments (1964: 64).

Note the emphasis on territory, race, and commonality to the exclusion of religio-cultural
difference—a reflection of the very way in which the foreign element (be it British or
Christian, Muslim or Islam) tended to be perceived in the land—as distinguishing
attributes of hindutva (which I think is more correctly translated as “Hinduness”). There
is a radical departure here from the polycentric phenomenon, so accommodating of
16 / Julius J. Lipner

plurality, which I described earlier as characterizing the traditional Hindu way of life.
Though the distinguishing attributes may vary to some extent, modern positions on the
nature of Hinduness adopted by Savarkar’s heirs continue to polarize Hindus from non-
Hindus in terms of unicentric structures of thought and practice. We cannot go into this
here, but all India-watchers will be aware of this trend coming to the fore in Indian
politics especially in the last decade or so.

Whither Hinduism, Whither India?

Because of the interplay of these conflicting traditional and modern tendencies,

Hinduism, and indeed India today (since over 80 percent of Indians are generally
designated as Hindus), are at a critical fork in the road. Which kind of influence will
prevail as India takes its place in an increasingly globalized world? There is a crucial
decision here that will affect the lives of billions by way of fallout, not only in India, but
also in an already politically tense subcontinent and beyond. Will Hinduism as a religion
endorse its polycentric, plurality-accommodating nature, extending this dynamic further
to encompass other faiths, or will it become increasingly unicentric and contentious?
Note that, in my assessment of the matter, polycentrism itself is a powerful means of non-
violent survival, a creative yet traditional form of ahiμså that one presumes the Mahåtmå
would endorse.
Will Indian politics, with its numerically superior Hindu component, work out
polycentric strategies towards harmony and progress; or will it, in accordance with the
new form of Hinduism that has emerged over the last hundred years or so (and which is
developing under the shadow of hindutva), adopt monocentric structures that cannot but
lend themselves to confrontation? These are critical questions that have been brewing in
the proverbial melting pot, and decisions must be made with an urgency that presses upon
us. It remains for all those who value not only the Mahåtmå’s message to us but also
Hinduism’s traditional contributions to the rich alterities of life to enter with serious
intent into this epochal debate.


1. This inaugural “Lecture on the History and Philosophy of Hinduism,” delivered

under the auspices of the Mahatma Gandhi Center for Global Nonviolence at James
Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, USA, 13 October 2005, is for posting on
the Internet only. The published version will appear in the International Journal of Hindu
Studies volume 10, issue 1 (April), 2006.
2. For a partial breakdown of numbers by country, see Woodhead, Fletcher,
Kawanami, and Smith (2002: 17). Woodhead’s figure for India has been revised upwards
2005 Lecture in the History and Philosophy of Hinduism / 17

in accordance with information given in India Today International, September 20 (2004:

9), which relies on data given by the 2001 Indian census.
3. For an account of this cultural transaction, see De Michelis (2004).
4. For a careful discussion of earlier stages of the concept formation involved, not
only with reference to the British, see Sweetman (2003).
5. Thus note the special role played in this respect by the Bhågavata Purå~a for
Gau⁄ya Vai‚~avas.
6. We can mention two such strategies here: (i) that the original Vedas are “special
revelation,” restricted to the twice-born castes, while the alternative Veda is a case of
more “general revelation” (see Lipner 2004: 27–28), and (ii) that the original Veda is a
form of implicit revelation which is made (increasingly) explicit in subsequent texts. For
example, in his Tattvårthad⁄panibandha (38), the fifteenth-century theologian Vallabha
declares: “In the early part [of the Veda], K®‚~a appears as the sacrifice (yajñar¨paª), in
the later [Upani‚adic portion], he appears as Brahman, [in the Bhagavad G⁄tå] he is the
avatårin [god in human form], but in the Bhågavata Purå~a, K®‚~a appears clearly [as
7. “In general”: it may well be that there are instances of polytheism under the vast
canopy of Hinduism. My claim is that their number is far fewer than suspected and,
further, that there is no polytheism in the Sanskritic theological systems that by consensus
act as the norm.
8. For some idea of the theology involved, see, for example, Narayanan (1982).
9. To make my point clear, I have transposed one or two sentences in this extract.
10. I have discussed this trait of Radhakrishnan’s thought in Lipner 1989.

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